'The Bostonians': so far, the best movie of the year. Merchant; Ivory, Jhabvala (and Henry James) have done it again
Summer is always a silly season at the movies, deluging us with fantasy and farce. This year is no exception, as ''Ghostbusters'' and ''Gremlins'' set the pace.Skip to next paragraph
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But a few serious offerings have sneaked in through the back door. The latest is ''The Bostonians,'' taken from Henry James's novel. It joins ''Under the Volcano'' in showing that literary adaptations are still a thriving enterprise for film - and that they needn't be washed out like ''The Natural,'' which kicked off the current spate of page-to-screen translations.
To say it right out, ''The Bostonians'' is the best movie I've seen all year. The story doesn't exactly gallop along - this is Henry James, after all - but it canters with an easy, flowing grace. Add a long list of vivid characters, and a mood as rich and proud as old Boston itself, and you have a hearty entertainment that's as thoughtful and engaging (if not so deep or imposing) as its source.
And talk about timely! The background of the novel, published in 1886, is the struggle for women's liberation, a subject James explores with great energy, if not as much insight as present-day readers might wish. Both the film and the book keep personal drama in the forefront, focusing on characters more than issues. But those issues lend the tale an extra fascination, and the filmmakers make good use of them.
The central character is Verena Tarrant, a young feminist with a talent for public speaking. Two other figures circle about her: a militant liberationist named Olive Chancellor, whose dedication borders on neurosis, and Basil Ransom, a suitor from Mississippi who thinks a lifetime of quiet housewifery is all a real lady could want. Beginning in 1875, not long after the Civil War, the story traces a struggle between intense Olive and chivalrous Basil for the heart and loyalty of Verena, whose sincerity is equaled only by her indecisiveness.
It's a dramatic plot as James wrote it, leavened with amusing twists of character and wry observations by the narrator. The filmmakers stay surprisingly close to the novel, considering its length, but some changes are evident. The movie's first and last scenes concern the militant Olive, for instance, making her (not Verena) seem the central character. And because film is such a literal medium, some of the story's subtler undercurrents come into unexpectedly high relief. This particularly affects the repressed sexual dimension of the relationship between Verena and Olive, which seems more immediate on the screen than on the page, despite the film's impeccable tact in treating such matters.
The adapters have mostly avoided tinkering, though, even when it might have helped James's narrative seem still more relevant to current concerns. For one important example, James's bottom-line attitude toward feminism seems to be embodied in a character named Dr. Prance - a self-made woman physician whose professional and intellectual activities keep her too busy to fuss with movements or dabble in causes. Her attitude is understandable but not acceptable , I feel, because it denies the need for political as well as personal action when a society's well-being is at stake.
At first the filmmakers mitigate this a bit, making Dr. Prance seem impatient with the rhetoric rather than the goals of the movement. But eventually she admits her lack of sympathy with the whole struggle, a position that seems less benign today than it might have a century ago. Only at the end does the screenplay make its own perspective clear, allowing the passionately committed Olive to air her views in a speech instead of vaguely dismissing her as James does on the last page.